On Edin & Shaefer’s ‘$2.00 a Day.’

On Edin & Shaefer’s ‘$2.00 a Day.’

K & I live pretty cheaply.

We try not to spend too much on food, but we always buy fresh fruits and vegetables.  We stock up on pasta when it’s on sale — on a recent shopping trip we bought 40 pounds at $0.50 per pound — and we eat a lot of rice, homemade bread, lentils, beans we rehydrate ourselves.  Still, I give us a budget of $30 per day for food, almost double what SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program, or “food stamps”) would let somebody spend.

Then there’s our mortgage, which costs another $30 per day.  We have two phones between us, which together cost $1.80 per day.  Internet, $1.50 per day.  Heat, water, and electricity?  Another $5.00 (which might sound like a lot — our little city prices water such that you pay more per unit the more you use, and N wears cloth diapers).  Our car needs gas and maintenance; even though we had enough in savings to buy it outright, it still costs us close to $2 per day.  Our sundry insurance policies (car, health, life, homeowner’s), roughly $20 daily.

We’re not profligate spenders.  Graduate school stipends aren’t huge amounts of money, and California’s Bay Area is an expensive place to live, but we were able to put away a lot of savings during our time there.  Starting salaries for public school teachers aren’t so high, either — because K had eight years’ worth of continuing education credits from her Ph.D., she started at $37k here — but we were supporting four adults on her salary for a while.  During those first few years we made do without a car, and the rent we were paying was cheaper than our mortgage is now, and I had to cut our food budget back from grad school’s fancy-pants $15 per person per day to about $6.  We had fewer treats like cauliflower, eggplant, and chocolate than we do now.

We’ve been lucky enough to rarely visit doctors or hospitals (except when I’d go retrieve K’s father after his government-funded surgeries).  The cost of what little care we receive is typically bundled up with our insurance.  But we maxed out our co-pay when N was born, and we’ll max it out again when we have another kid.  So — most years, zero, some years, $10 per day.  I’ll budget the higher number.

We pay $1.90 per day for childcare.  People who look after children ought to be compensated much better than they are now; it’s absurd how little this is valued in our country.  At the same time, I’m grateful that we can afford such high-quality childcare.

We wear clothes till threadbare.  I’d estimate that our whole family spends no more than $0.50 per day on clothes.  Most of my best shirts have come from the dumpsters after the university students moved out.

Still, our current version of austerity has us spending over $100 per day.

Reading Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer’s $2.00 a Day was brutal.

unnamed.jpgEdin & Shaefer spent time with impoverished families to learn what life is like at the bottom of our nation’s income distribution.  Their work focuses on anecdote and portraiture.  Despite the fact that, as a math brain, I love numbers and statistics, I was completely convinced that their method was best for this project.  In their words:

In big, nationally representative surveys (like the one that provides the hard numbers for this book), families may not always tell researchers (usually government employees) about income from all of the survival strategies described in this chapter.  A mom with one child who tells a researcher that she had $120 in income during a particular month might actually have had $180 because she donated plasma twice or sold $100 in SNAP benefits in exchange for $60 in cash.  When queried by researchers, a mother may fear prosecution if she reports that she got money from a “friend” in exchange for sex.  Some may simply forget to report the cash they get from collecting aluminum cans — perhaps because it is so irregular or the profit is so small.  Others — particularly those who are homeless or otherwise on the move, shifting from the home of one relative to another — may not even appear in big government surveys because they have no stable address.  The only way to get a true accounting of the resources of the $2-a-day poor is to spend large amounts of time with them, build trust, and meticulously document their circumstances.  But this kind of research is time-consuming.  Without millions of research dollars, it is impossible to identify and follow a large random sample of the $2-a-day poor, which would be the only way to paint a reliable national portrait of what they must do to survive.

Because it takes a lot of ingenuity to survive extreme poverty, everyone’s solutions are unique.  Aggregate statistics would cause you to overlook the idiosyncratic blend of trash picking, plasma selling, sexual favor trading, and apartment sharing that allows people to scrape by.  But Edin & Shaefer, by taking time to get to know people, were able to see these strategies.

Edin & Shaefer argue — correctly, I’m convinced — that you can’t learn what it takes to survive poverty when you think about people as numbers.  You have to get to know people as individual human beings.  Then you can understand.

Here’s a quick summary of what they found: 1.) People are hungry.  2.) When you’re depending on others for shelter, sexual assault is rampant.  3.) These assaults, and negative encounters with the police, and pervasive fear — that the car will break, that Walmart won’t assign enough hours, that there won’t be food tonight — has led to innumerable cases of PTSD.  Which makes it even harder to think, to plan, to do anything but worry.

The statistical problems Edin & Shaefer described in the quote above mean we don’t know how many people are living this way.  But a reasonable guess is: many.  In their words again:

unnamed (1)Where do we see hard evidence of the rise in extreme poverty among families with children?  It is evident in the SIPP, the nationally representative survey that does the best job of capturing the incomes of the poor.  It is seen in SNAP administrative records, which show a sharp uptick in the number of families reporting no other form of income save SNAP.  In fact, the SNAP estimates match those from the SIPP survey remarkably closely.  Reports in some major cities suggest increased demand for family shelter beds starting in the early 2000s, as well as an increase in the number of families seeking emergency food services that predates the Great Recession.  But the best proof of all that the $2-a-day poor exist is that finding people who fit this profile … is not that hard.  It can be done in a relatively short amount of time in a number of locales across the country.  This virtually cashless form of poverty is out there, even though we wish it weren’t.  And it has grown.

Perhaps I should mention, now, that the comparison between my family’s spending and the daily cash allotment of many people in extreme poverty is somewhat flawed.  For instance, I included our mortgage.  Many people in extreme poverty spend a portion of each year paying no rent — they might be renting an apartment but using their money on other expenses, knowing that they’re about to be evicted, or they might be in a shelter, or sleeping in a car, or sharing housing with a relative or romantic partner or complete stranger.

But, during those times when people at the bottom of the income distribution do pay for their own housing, they often pay more than my family does.  For unsafe, unsound properties.  This phenomenon is described in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted:

unnamed (3)… rent in some of the worst neighborhoods was not drastically cheaper than rent in much better areas.  For example, in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of families lived below the poverty line, median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only $50 less than the citywide median.

This has long been the case.  When tenements began appearing in New York City in the mid-1800s, rent in the worst slums was 30 percent higher than in uptown.  In the 1920s and ‘30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other northern cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods.  As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations.  The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing.  They were there — and this was especially true of the black poor — simply because they were allowed to be.

There are so few options at the bottom that poor people get squeezed much harder than those who could actually afford it.

Similarly, my family’s $100+ daily expenses includes everything we spend on food.  At the bottom of the income distribution, most people have access to SNAP — other than my wife, everyone in her family received these.

K’s father actually had enough to eat when he was on SNAP.  We helped him buy a bus pass, so he was able to ride out to a real grocery store.  But many people who receive SNAP don’t have access to transportation, which forces them to shop at the one small store nearby, which means they often pay more than wealthier shoppers for equivalent items.  When you’re getting gouged, food stamps don’t go far.  Worse, you might need to buy gas so that you can get to work.  Food stamps don’t buy gas.  You’d be stuck trading your stamps for cash at something like 50 or 30 cents to the dollar.  At the end of the month, you & your kids won’t eat.

Childhood food insecurity causes lifelong mental and physical changes.  My dear friend who made it gets laughed at all the time because food makes her behave so strangely — she still hears that voice in her head urging her to stake out her own portion when she sits down to a family-style dinner with people.

The people laughing have never been hungry.

The people laughing have bones that break less easily.

And I included the amount K & I spend on insurance.  So many types of insurance!  People living in extreme poverty often pay nothing for insurance.  There’s no money for it.

But this means, obviously, that poor people have to spend more eventually.  In Hand to Mouth, Linda Tirado writes that she did not grow up impoverished.  But she was poor enough as a young adult that she couldn’t afford insurance, which meant she was a single flood away from losing everything she owned.

There are countless stories of U.S. citizens who were getting by — not doing well, but not struggling to survive — until a medical disaster left them unable to work & swamped with unpaid bills.

Which means yet another challenge that poor people in this country have to face that us lucky wealthy ones can remain blissfully ignorant of.  Honestly, the fact that I could list my family’s expenses at all reveals how well off we are.  We can budget our spending, because spending, for wealthy people, is relatively stable.  We have enough money that we can set some aside for eventual car repairs, which means we won’t have to borrow when our car breaks, or lose a job, or…

Could people living in extreme poverty set aside money for those eventual expenses?  Honestly, no.  If you’re hungry — worse, if you’re watching your kid be hungry — you spend money on food.  Or so I’ve heard.  I’m lucky.  I get to learn about poverty from books instead of by living it.

Of course, this also means I have to deal with the attendant shame of reading books like Edin & Shaefer’s.  The message is clear: we, as a people, are failing.  We should not have made a world where people have to live like this.

It’s not as though the solution is so difficult to come up with, either.  I disagree with some of Paul Theroux’s economic ideas here, but you should take a moment to read his lovely editorial, “The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor.”

Yes, food stamps help.  No, they don’t help enough.  But the real solution isn’t to boost social welfare spending (although that would be a step in the right direction).  Many people living in extreme poverty want to work.  But there aren’t jobs.  (In the future, there’ll be even fewer).

And yet much of our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling.  We would all be better off if the federal government started pouring money into laying fiber-optic cable; fixing roads; manufacturing, installing, & maintaining solar panels; providing low-cost, well-compensated, high-quality childcare…

There’s plenty that could be done, and there are people who would be thrilled at the chance to do it.  Instead, we’re leaving them stranded: hungry, assaulted, cold, traumatized.

On my own attempt to understand what motivates people to join the terrorist organization Daesh.

On my own attempt to understand what motivates people to join the terrorist organization Daesh.

Until recently, I was unaware of the existence of Rojava, the Kurdish quasi-state that’s made more successful overtures toward gender equality than any other modern nation.  Their constitution is based on contemporary philosophy, whereas our own was written by people two centuries less informed about reality than we are.

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For instance, the moral equality between men and women stated explicitly in Rojava’s constitution.  Every role in their government is bifurcated such that a male and a female hold equivalent posts.  Whereas the writers of our own constitution were primarily seeking to protect the rights of landed white men, considering blacks, women, and the poor to be more or less value-less.

I learned a lot about Rojava from the pair of articles that appeared almost simultaneously in the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Magazine (you can read all of the latter even without a subscription — and you should!).  It’s clear that the place isn’t perfect.  Not just because the entire region is shackled by seemingly ceaseless horrific violence, although that seems to be the root cause of the other problems.  The apparent cultish devotion to an imprisoned man named Ocalan seems suspicious to me.  And the standing army of Rojava may have committed some horrific wartime atrocities of its own, although it’s difficult for me to judge them too harshly for this.  I (luckily!) have no experience with the psychological consequences of constant fear.

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But the good parts of Rojava sound lovely.  The equality.  The commitment to religious freedom.  The efforts to regain a strong sense of community in a modern urban environment.  The opportunity for all people to work toward a university education.

That’s why it seems so sad that Rojava might not survive.  The nation of Turkey has been subtly threatening to squelch it for a while, but it seems that collaboration between the U.S. and Rojava makes direct military action from Turkey unlikely.

More worrisome are the constant attacks on Rojava perpetrated by Daesh.

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Art by dessinateur777 on Deviantart.

(Until I sat down to type this post, I planned to use the term “ISIS” for the terrorist organization beleaguering Rojava.  I’m using the term “Daesh” instead per recommendations that I learned about from translator Alice Gurthrie’s lovely blog post.  Although “ISIS” and “Daesh” are both acronyms that mean the same thing, acronyms are much less common in Arabic, which makes more explicit a speaker’s refusal to use the entire grandiose name purporting dominance and statehood.  Also, the term “Isis” in English calls to mind the ancient Egyptian goddess: the acronym sounds vaguely portentious.  Whereas the Arabic acronym “Daesh” apparently sounds like words used during the dark ages, the way nonsense words like Lord Dunsany’s “gnole” or Jack Vance’s “erb” sound vaguely like medieval creatures to English ears.  The closest-sounding word in Arabic is “daes,” meaning a thing that tramples — conjuring up something like a burly troll throwing a temper tantrum?)

Members of Daesh are attempting to terrorize the inhabitants of Rojava … and France … and the U.S.  Which is why it seems urgent to understand what motivates people to join Daesh.  Indeed, many people far more informed than I am are working on this question.  There have been several New York Times articles on the topic in the last few months — for instance this article from June about pathetic friendless individuals from the U.S. joining via internet chat rooms, hoping to finally fit in with a community.

A murderous misogynistic ill-educated community, sure.  But a community nonetheless.

After reading several such profiles, and making a cursory attempt to survey the (very, very extensive) literature on Daesh membership in the Arab world, I’ve decided that one way to frame why people join the organization would be to read Kent Russell’s essay “American Juggalo” from his collection I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son.

I’m obviously not saying there’s any equivalence between listening to rap rock and filming beheadings, or going on shooting sprees, or setting off explosives that kill hundreds.  Rap rock, when listened to alone, hurts no one.

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Art by Gir510 on Deviantart.

My thought is only that there may be a parallel in the societal and psychological forces that compel people to fall in with the norms of those two communities.  Consider these three snippets from a passage at the beginning of Russell’s essay:

“I did the whole Gathering last year,” Sandy said.  “I’m not staying past sundown tomorrow.  I hope you brought something green, or an orange.”  Justin slalomed around shirtless juggalos.  Seen from behind, most had broad, slumped shoulders and round, hanging arms.  They were not stout.  These people were grubbed with fat.  They looked partially deflated.  You think I’m being cruel, but these were the most physically unhealthful people I’d ever seen.  “Because if not, you’re shit out of luck.  Unless you especially love carnival burgers, or fried curds from out the back of someone’s RV.”

. . .

No more than twenty-four inches in front of us sat twin girls on the rear bumper of a white minivan.  They couldn’t have been a day over fourteen or a biscuit under 225.  They wore bikini tops, and the way they slouched — breasts resting on paunches, navels razed to line segments — turned their trunks into parodies of their sullen faces.

. . .

The twins screamed, “Show us your titties, bitch!” at Sandy.  A tall guy with a massive water gun screamed, “Man, fuck your ride!” and sprayed us with a stream of orange drink the pressure and circumference of which made me think of racehorses.  A “FUCK YOUR RIDE!” chant went up and around the crowd, and garbage was thrown.  I would describe what kind of garbage, and how it felt to be the object of such ire — but I had so much garbage thrown at me at the Gathering of the Juggalos that showers of refuse became commonplace, a minor annoyance, and describing one would be like describing what it’s like to get a little wet on a winter’s day in Seattle.

Now, I don’t blame you if you find Russell’s mean-spirited tone to be a little off-putting.  In the context of this piece, though, I think the tone works well.  That mean-spirited tone helps reinforce a message about why the juggalos behave the way they do toward Russell.

Genetics obviously has a big impact on eventual behavior, but brains are sufficiently plastic that life experiences matter more.  Nurture can have a larger influence than nature.

Very few children are born mean.  Some have troubles with impulse control, sure.  And just about anybody will lash out when in pain — maybe some children are more predisposed to suffer than others.  Evolutionary forces had no inclination to select for people who would feel comfortable.  A shame, really.  If that sort of evolutionary pressure had existed, maybe teething wouldn’t be so horrible.

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On the prowl for screaming children …

(I should point out that this is a very self-centered way to think about evolution.  The words “evolutionary pressure” don’t sound so foreboding, but hidden behind those neutral-seeming words is a long history of night-stalking predators that would’ve mauled children who cried out in their sleep.  For a negative trait to be removed from a population, there have to be specific forces that either kill bearers of that trait or otherwise prevent them from breeding.  Our good genes are abundant only because tragedy upon tragedy befell those with other patterns in their DNA.)

So I’d posit that a long history of suffering underlies the behavior of people who threw garbage at Russell during the Gathering.  That’s why I think Russell’s mocking tone works so well in the essay.  When he mocks participants at the Gathering, it becomes easy to imagine that these people were also mocked by their classmates, their teachers, maybe their parents and neighbors, even.

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Friends don’t let friends eat garbage.  Unless they’re broke.  Then this farm-bill-subsidized crap might be all they can afford.

(The latter two are slightly less likely, because a lot of Russell’s mockery is tied up with these people being poor.  Poor people are often heavier because the U.S. government subsidizes awful food.  The places where poor people live are typically less safe for pedestrians than wealthier neighborhoods.  Poor children are more likely to be left in an apartment alone while both parents are out working, meaning they have even less opportunity to run around.  They can’t afford the local soccer league or YMCA basketball or gymnastics or dance class or martial arts.  And poverty is stressful.  Stress itself causes a litany of crummy physiological effects, again predisposing people to weight gain.  It’s hard to exercise when you feel ill-rested, when you sleep on uncomfortable mattresses or couches, when your gastrointestinal tract feels awful from the terrible food you have to eat.)

I’d argue that most people don’t feel much schadenfreude unless they themselves are suffering.

What I took away from Russell’s essay is that it probably took years of being treated like garbage for the juggalos to want to throw garbage at him.

Obviously throwing garbage is less horrible than the atrocities committed by Daesh.  But the terrorists have absorbed very different cultural norms.  Many have lived in perpetual war.  Horrific violence, including violence sponsored by the U.S., is endemic to that part of the Middle East.

I don’t think many (any?) children are born with a desire to behead journalists, rape wantonly, detonate their own selves in order to murder strangers.  I imagine it took many years of feeling worthless for those to seem like attractive choices.  Then it probably took the alchemy of lifelong PTSD and constant immersion in state-sponsored violence combining with that sense of being devalued by the world for members of Daesh to want to load an AK-47 with bullets instead of a Supersoaker with orange Faygo.

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Not that this is in any way intended to excuse or rationalize murder.  Sure, pervasive unemployment and poverty and the sense that one’s way of life is under siege is crummy, but it’s clearly not okay to respond to that sense of aggrievement by terrorizing innocents.

But I think it does suggest that bombs will make a pretty terrible long-term strategy to combat Daesh.  Shoveling money into the region to provide meaningful jobs would work far better.  We’re too late for this to be easy — trying to set up work opportunities amidst such violence sounds like an awful task.

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I can’t think of any other workable solutions, though.

Oh, and, in the face of that type of seemingly nihilistic philosophy, I think it’s imperative to be nice.  Any attendees of the Gathering, after reading Russell’s essay, probably felt quite justified in having thrown garbage at him.  He was a jerk after all, they could think.  He deserved it.

In the case of Daesh, by refusing to take in Syrian refugees, we reinforce the suspicion that the U.S. is a nation full of callous jerks.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

CaptureMany people are upset that Amnesty International finally came out in favor of decriminalizing sex work.

Not me.  I think decriminalizing sex work is a step in the right direction.  Sex workers’ lives are often miserable.  Their underground status denies them police protection; instead, they are often actively abused by the police.

The philosophical rationale for outlawing sex work is at least more sound than the equivalent rationale for outlawing the drug trade, though.  I’m in favor of decriminalization for both, but in the case of sex work I acknowledge that there are extremely valid reasons to feel squeamish about the tacit approval conferred by decriminalization.

Laws are just only insofar as they protect people.  Driving laws are imminently just — letting people drive however they wanted would endanger the lives of everyone else on or near roadways.  Whereas drug laws appear at first glance to be imminently unjust — if a burnout decides to loaf around his apartment, smoke a jay, watch some television, it would seem that no one else is harmed.

Only two arguments I’ve seen for outlawing drug use have any merit.  One is that a person under the influence of a particular compound cannot be trusted to peacefully loaf in his apartment.  Amphetamine use, for instance, both confers extra energy and impairs judgement (the latter effect is due mostly to lack of sleep, not a pharmacological effect of amphetamines themselves, but I think it’s fair to make this approximation since amphetamines impede sleep.  This is especially true for the methylated analogues because that methylation slows drug metabolism; the half-life is so long that a single dose can prevent someone from sleeping for a day or two).

It’s reasonable to guess that people given free access to amphetamines would become unlawful.

CaptureOf course, we outlawed amphetamines poorly.  They are all scheduled, meaning they are all illegal to purchase or possess without a prescription… but many flavors can be purchased in large quantities with a valid prescription.

In practice, this means that amphetamines are outlawed for poor people.  Wealthy college students and medical doctors and tenure-track professors all have ready access.  So the way amphetamines are outlawed in this country is clearly unjust, and rampant abuse among wealthy populations belies the notion that amphetamines lead to lawless behavior… but as long as you ignore the empirical evidence and just focus on the theory, the philosophical rationale makes sense.

The other argument for outlawing drug use is that compounds are so addictive, and so dangerous, that we should accept some harm to adults (imprisonment, the danger of participating in underground markets) in order to prevent children from ever trying drugs.  Children, knowing that the laws make users’ lives awful, might consider that extra cost and decide that a first taste isn’t worth it.  Additionally, the laws might reduce access, so there’d be less risk that a child ever has an opportunity to choose poorly.

Personally, I think this is a rotten strategy.  There are viable alternatives that allow adult access while still keeping a good or service out of the hands of children.  These strategies also tend to break down in markets for illegal goods or services.  In many regions of our country it is easier for children to buy marijuana than alcohol.  And we now have nearly a half-century’s worth of evidence that harm caused by the War on Drugs outweighs the potential paternalistic protection afforded to children.

The War on Drugs has led to heroin overdoses because illegal goods have limited quality control.  Brutality & murder in impoverished urban areas because people without access to police protection depend upon reprisal to maintain order.  Brutality, murder, rape, kidnapping, terror & more in huge swaths of Mexico, all clearly the result of U.S. drug policy.  And millions of harmless people denied their freedom in U.S. prisons, effectively state-sponsored partial murders because those people forfeit the bulk of their adult lives.

But, again, that’s merely empirical evidence.  None of that contradicts the theoretical justification for outlawing drug use, the idea that some harm to adults is acceptable in order to protect children.  Perhaps our legislators simply care about children’s well-being much more than I do.

(Except, right, they don’t care about children in Mexico.  Or those living in our nation’s dangerous inner cities.  Or those who grow up without access to their incarcerated parents.  But, give our legislators a break!  Empathy fatigue is real!  They can’t be expected to maintain the same degree of concern for everyone.  Shouldn’t they be commended that they at least care deeply about the well-being of privileged suburban children?)

It felt necessary to detail those arguments because they also provide the motivation for outlawing sex work.

The feminist argument resembles the supposition that people allowed to buy drugs will then behave unacceptably.  The idea is that men who are allowed to purchase women’s bodies will devalue women in general.  I’m skeptical, though.  After decriminalization, most bodies will still not be for sale.  No one would be forced to participate in the sex trade.  And just because you can walk into a sparring gym and pay a boxing instructor to let you take some swings at him does not mean that people think it’s fair game to throw down some bills and punch whomever they like.

shutterstock_128676716-800x430It’s true that we live in a very misogynistic culture.  Some misogynists might feel empowered to talk & act even more crudely if they were legally allowed to purchase sex.  But it’s not as though misogynists are currently unable to purchase sex.  And our current system denies sex workers protection against bad actors — decriminalization would confer dignity and allow them to demand more respectful treatment from their clientele.

And there is a serious problem with the “increase the cost of participation in the sex trade to protect people from it” argument.  A major reason why people need to be protected from joining the trade is that it is illegal.  Decriminalization would reduce the dangers.  And even though current laws against sex work increase the cost of participation, there are still many people willing to pay that cost.  There are individuals who want to buy sex.  There are desperate people who need money.  Ironically, the laws against sex work even reduce the amount of money that the latter group can earn.

(Some economics in brief: demand for most goods is based on price.  If price increases, demand goes down.  For purchasers of illegal sex, the risk of being caught is an additional cost.  Which means that in every transaction they are paying in both dollars and risk.  If the legal risk were instead zero, the amount of dollars that buyers would be willing to pay for identical services would increase.)

This is where my personal qualms come in, by the way.  I’m willing to believe that some people are genuinely willing to sell sex.  I’ve spoken with several people who enjoy working as massage therapists, and to my mind some types of sex work differ in degree, not in kind, from massage.  A professional uses practiced touch to confer physiological and psychological wellness.

The problem is that people who did not want to but had no other options might also sell sex.

Lydia_Cacho_en_entrevistaI’m in favor of decriminalizing sex work, but I think that if we do decriminalize sex work but make no other changes to the world, the result will be evil.  Women will continue to be hurt in ways resembling those documented by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc.  (The book is great — if you care about these issues, it’s well worth a read.  Also, if somebody ever starts printing heroic human rights worker trading cards, I’d definitely nominate Cacho to appear in the first set.)

Without a concurrent effort to address poverty, decriminalizing sex work could reasonably be construed as coercive.  The impoverished might well feel compelled to participate in order to survive.  If people have extremely limited options, making one option more attractive does funnel people into participation.  It wouldn’t be entirely against their will, but survival impetus means it wouldn’t be entirely voluntary either.  Ironically, their near-forced participation would also reduce the amount that all those desperate people could earn from each unwanted act.

(The other side of price equilibrium is based on supply — if supply of a good is high, like if many hungry people have to sell sex to have enough money to eat, the price has to be lowered to move the whole quantity.  Poverty-impelled participants would undermine each other’s wages.)

Part of why this is so crummy is that we have sufficient resources to fix this.  The productivity gains from modern automation and agriculture mean we could probably provide all people with food, shelter, and basic utilities (water will get trickier as time goes on) for free.  The rudiments of survival don’t cost that much relative to modern production capacity.

And a guarantee of subsistence would make the idea of decriminalized sex work much more palatable.  The idea of sex being traded as commerce isn’t so problematic in and of itself — as I mentioned, I see it as being on the same continuum as legal massage… or mosh pits, which also provide paid access to human contact.  The horrors come from people feeling pressured to sell sex in order to survive.

In my opinion, a guaranteed minimum standard of living is also the most practical form for reparations to take.

320px-Ta-Nehisi_CoatesI really enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article about reparations (“The Case for Reparations”).  It wasn’t at all pedantic or abstract — which means that I was clearly not the intended audience — but I enjoyed it all the same.  One of his main aims is to show that people alive today have been victimized by the long legacy of racially-motivated abuse in the United States.  Which means reparations would be not only an acknowledgement of long-past wrongs, but would also serve to ameliorate very recent & ongoing harm.

In his article, however, Coates did not address who would pay or how reparations might be fairly distributed.  To my mind those practical considerations are of utmost importance in deciding whether the idea is at all viable.

I think it is.  I think that a global wealth tax used to fund a minimum standard of living for all people is plausible, philosophically justifiable, and would have meaningful economic & psychological consequences for the decedents of oppressed peoples.

I wrote about some of the underlying principles in my previous post about the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression — the idea that our cultural & technological heritage is the product of exploitation because subjugation of the world’s many allowed a free-riding few to pursue goals other than subsistence.  This has rough equivalence to the way advancement comes about in evolution — gene duplication produces free-riding DNA sequences that are allowed to drift because the original copy takes care of required function.

But the basic idea behind using a wealth tax to fund reparations is even simpler: wealth begets wealth.  Initial inequalities in distribution (which probably even existed amongst “egalitarian” hunter gatherers) will, over time, magnify into dramatic unfairness.  Wealthy heirs earn far more by renting their property than our hardest workers possibly could via effort alone.

I’m not sure anyone still thinks that communism is a reasonable fix for this, though.  As much as I dislike Ayn Rand’s writing (although it’s fascinating to me that many feminists and conservative Christians both like her books… this despite repeated depictions of Rand’s ideal men sexually assaulting her ideal women and Rand’s clear disdain for Christianity), I agree with some of her arguments against communism.  Knowing that you can’t profit from your efforts saps motivation.  Absolute equality undermines personal value.  And it seems just plain strange to have your net worth instantly decrease whenever a stranger has a child.

345829246_a7434a76dcMore reasonable, to my mind, is a tax on total wealth.  This would not devalue effort because it ignores income; the tax would be based on current holdings.  Taxation at any amount less than the rental income rate would still leave that maxim “wealth begets wealth” untouched… the only change would be that wealth would beget slightly less wealth.  (A reasonable rate of return on wealth right now, like if you buy some certificates of deposit, is about 3%.  Historically 5% is standard, and the largest property holders are often able to attain rates of 8% – 12%.  If you’d like to read a little more about this, you could check out my previous post on wealth tax, automation, & human trafficking.)

A global wealth tax would be philosophically justifiable as an acknowledgement that all current holdings can be traced back through time to violence and oppression.  For instance, no one created land (this isn’t entirely true — China has been constructing islands, and you could argue that draining the weather-buffering swamps in Florida and Louisiana was akin to creating land — but for most places, though most of history, it’s true enough).

It’s pretty easy to see land entitlement as having resulted from violence.  Humans migrated into new territory, killed off the dangerous animals that were there, then were murdered in turn by a new wave of human migrants, who were then murdered by new migrants, over and over until the conquerors were sufficiently powerful to defend their property and stop the cycle of theft.

Or there’s the case of the United States.  Our current wealth reflects our long history as a global superpower, but that history began somewhere.  First European settlers massacred the Native Americans.  Our meteoric rise was then propelled by cotton.  And how was the United States able to dominate the world’s cotton market?

Oh, right.

353181520_92b6b4a831

Our nation’s rise as an economic superpower was due to the brutal exploitation of black laborers.

Murder of those who resisted their enslavement.  Rape to propagate an imprisoned people.

Because wealth begets wealth, and because economic reparations were never paid, all current wealth in this country can be traced back to that initial evil.  Our nation’s initial prosperity came from sin.  Everyone who enjoys good fortune here today benefits from & is thereby marked by crimes whose reverberations have not ended & will not end on their own.

I’m not saying that no one did honest work later.  Obviously hundreds of millions did.  Your parents presumably did not oppress anyone in order to purchase their house.

But that doesn’t change the legacy.  If they were lucky, your parents received a decent education — their schools’ funding did not materialize wholesale from the aether.  They presumably received a loan to be able to purchase a home (the Coates reparations article has some excellent documentation for historic and contemporary harm perpetuated by both our nation’s banks & federal lending policies).  The original inhabitants of the land on which that home was built were murdered.  The national prosperity that makes that land more valuable than an equivalent parcel elsewhere was bled out of generations of slaves.

It’s too late to seek forgiveness for sins perpetuated against those who are now dead, but economic reparations could serve to make current wealth clean.

There is, of course, the question of who should benefit from reparations.  History is sufficiently tangled that I don’t think any attempt at strict accounting of whose ancestors were harmed & how much would be fruitful.  Nor do I think an accounting of that sort is necessary.  In contemporary times, the most egregious harms result from our failure to provide for the children of the poor — in our country, not only does wealth perpetuate itself, we have policies that go a long way toward guaranteeing that poverty will perpetuate itself as well.

This could be ameliorated by providing all people with a minimum standard of living.  Children can’t learn when they’re hungry. It wouldn’t cost much to offer all students a peanut butter & jelly sandwich (or a calorically-equivalent hypoallergenic meal) at the beginning of each school day.  Instead we let them sit in classrooms with rumbling stomachs & agitated minds and chastise their teachers when they fail.

Children who work long hours to help their parents pay rent (please scroll to the bottom of this article and read the final 10 paragraphs — the rest is good too, but I’ve picked out the most heartbreaking section for you) can’t learn well either.  Even children who simply stay awake worrying what’ll happen to their families are at a major disadvantage.  If you’re worried about having enough money to survive, you can’t really think about anything else (feel free to check out Mani et al.’s “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” if you haven’t seen it yet, or see this recent post).

If food & shelter & basic utilities were guaranteed, we’d cut down on those worries.  Poor people would be given room to breathe and think and plan.

(Are you one of those people who likes numbers?  Here is a tiny bit of math to support my claim that this is feasible.  I’d say $500 per month per person is reasonable to provide food, shelter, and utilities — honestly, this amount comes close to cutting it in Bloomington IN, and that’s without any dedicated infrastructure for the project.  For most of the globe, $500 might be a vast overestimate.  With a world population of seven billion, that puts us at needing $3.5 trillion per year if all people wanted to take advantage of the crappy minimum offerings.  Under a twentieth of the gross world product.  And, regarding a wealth tax, it would take approximately a 1.5% tax on wealth holdings to fund that full amount.  That’s well below the historical 5% rate of return for capital.)

This implementation wouldn’t explicitly target blacks.  Maybe that’s a bad thing, because it wouldn’t make the apology aspect of reparations explicit.  This nation, as a collective, has done wrong and should atone for it.  But our nation’s blacks do suffer the slings of poverty more severely than other citizens (largely because we still have policies in place that ensure that they will), so a serious program to address poverty would benefit many who’ve inherited that legacy of mistreatment.  And the impoverished masses in other countries generally reside in areas that were once (or are still) exploited by our world’s now-wealthy nations.  Their plight reflects past theft of their resources.

And, getting back to sex work — many of the problems that will come from decriminalized sex work would not arise in a world with guaranteed subsistence.

People might feel compelled to sell sex against their wishes if the practice is decriminalized and they need money to survive but have no other way of obtaining it.  Many of the current ails of sex workers result from their criminal status.  But without addressing poverty, it is likely that sex workers will still be denied police protection because they’ll still be considered criminals.  Instead of being criminals by virtue of being sex workers, they’ll be considered criminals because of immigration status.  Impoverished people have long been trafficked to regions with decriminalized sex work and held hostage by the threat of fines, deportation, and reprisal against their families.

5611594783_8e9a533564_bWhich obviously sounds grim.  But I don’t think those are inherent consequences of decriminalized sex work.  Those are the consequences of impoverished desperation amongst people with few options.  Similar economic motivations underlie participation in unethical organ markets (which I wrote about for my first post to this website).

Still, I’d like to thank Amnesty International.  Their advocacy for decriminalization is sorely needed.  But I expect to hear many more horror stories akin to those documented in Cacho’s book unless we make a sincere effort to combat poverty.  Micro-loans or not-quite-enough-to-live-on food allotments are not going to cut it.  People need to know that they’ll at least survive if something goes wrong.

Also, how did I type up this whole post without including the Balzac epigraph from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather?  I’ll include it here — please pretend you read it earlier, to punctuate any of the above paragraphs where it would’ve been appropriate.

“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

On growing up poor, and hamsters.

smiffsI recently read a cute article by Emily Underwood, “How to tell if your hamster is happy.” There is an easy answer, too.  The hamsters in question are research animals, so the answer is, “No, they probably are not.”  Of all the research animals I’ve interacted with, the only one that seemed happy was the narcoleptic dog, and it was no longer being used for any experiments.

Most experiments seem not fun for the animals.  Simply being around researchers induces significant stress, even if those “researchers” are just cardboard simulacra of celebrities, and especially if those researchers-are-flesh and blood masculine-scent-wafting males.  A lot of published research on stress and pain and such is probably incorrect because the controls used for the experiments, non-tormented animals that still lived in an animal facility and interacted with researchers, were also experiencing duress.

But the experiment discussed in Underwood’s article still has useful things to teach us, in part because I don’t think the essential message is really about happiness at all.  I think their experiment is best interpreted as an investigation into the neurological consequences of poverty.

In humans, there’s been a recent effort to document the ways that childhood poverty changes a brain.  These aren’t experiments; aside from those twins in Colombia, nobody is being scooped out of their middle-class family and instead raised in poverty.  But the evidence from retrospective analysis suggests that poverty has long-term effects on brain structure and, therefore, on behavior.

And the results of the new hamster study match what you’d expect based on the human results.

hamster-eating-broccoliHere’s a quick summary: hamsters were either raised in standard cages or in “enriched” environments — at the beginning of the study they all had their crappy cages with access to water and dry rodent pellets, a running wheel, a cardboard tube, and twice-weekly handling (two to a cage, at least, so they did have some companionship).  Then they were briefly given access to a wide variety of fun hamster toys (Gnaw sticks!  Hamster huts!  A suspended hamster tent!  An upgraded running wheel!).

After the hamsters learned what the toys were (& that they were a blast), enrichment was taken away from half of them.  These were the impoverished hamsters.  Previous exposure to luxury ensured that these hamsters would mirror Robert Frank’s ideas about wealth, that our perceived wealth depends primarily upon the lifestyle of those around us: the hamsters needed to learn about the great toys to know that they were poor for not having them.

Then the experiment began.  The hamsters knew that researchers generally put sweet-tasting water in a bottle at the left of a test cage and foul-tasting water to the right.  They would then scoop up either privileged or impoverished hamsters and drop them into the test cage with a bottle set up at an ambiguous middle position.

Bone-HamsterWealthy hamsters were willing to sample the water.  Maybe it will be delicious!  Poor hamsters were less likely to sample the water: if it’s near the middle, it’s probably foul.  Everything else in my life is rotten, so why wouldn’t this water situation be rotten too?

And it’s important to keep this kind of result in mind when considering our world.  Inequality in upbringing is so severe that we’re engendering massive neurological differences between people… while they are still children.  It clearly isn’t a child’s fault that he or she was born into a poor household as opposed to a wealthy one, but that child, and that child’s future children, and so on, will suffer the consequences.

Which is very clear in my own life.  Because I am writing full time, we live very austerely — we are supporting our family, and trying to help K’s father, on a single public schoolteacher’s salary.  Most of our calories come from rice and dried beans.  Our furniture was liberated from collegiate dumpsters.  Our entertainment budget is nil.

sleeping-hamsterBut that’s of little consequence because my family is rich, I was raised wealthy, and my brain has already established privileged patterns of thought.  The austerity clearly isn’t poverty for us because we bring in more money than we want to spend, even though our income level is below some other families’ who feel poor.

What’s more impressive to me is that K is so happy living this way.  She did not grow up wealthy, but she has as much emotional resilience as I do.  Or, no.  Let’s face it: she is more emotionally robust.  Even our friend whose radiologist was able to read her ribs like rings of a tree (“See this, here?  This shows when your family didn’t have enough to eat”) has the can-do I’ll-try-my-best-even-if-I-might-fail attitude people normally associate with growing up rich.

Of course, that’s true with the hamsters, too.  Yes, there is a difference between how adventurous impoverished hamsters and rich hamsters become, but the error bars are still big — there’s still a lot of variation between individuals.  Some hamsters overcome.  Our friend would’ve been one of those unvanquished hamsters.

Still, it’s rotten seeing the difference.  Even if some people overcome their upbringing, it’s rotten reading about the neurological consequences of poverty and knowing what they’re up against… and knowing how many people will be defeated by those circumstances.  It’s rotten knowing all this and then reading the newspaper and seeing that, nope, we’re still unlikely to have universal preschool in the near future, we’re still unlikely to provide free breakfast to all students in public education, we’re still unlikely to make a real effort toward progressive taxation so that more children can grow up with a fair shot at success.

On hunting.

I saw many posts on the internet from people upset about hunting, specifically hunting lions.  And eventually I watched the Jimmy Kimmel spot where he repeatedly maligns the Minnesota hunter for shooting that lion, and even appears to choke up near the end while plugging a wildlife research fund that you could donate money to.

And, look, I don’t really like hunting.  I’m an animal lover, so I’m not keen on the critters being shot, and I’m a runner who likes being out and about in our local state parks.  Between my loping stride and long hair, I look like a woodland creature.  I’m always nervous, thinking somebody might accidentally shoot me.  Yeah, I wear orange during the big seasons, but I still worry.

But I thought Jimmy Kimmel’s segment was silly.

141202150915-lion-exlarge-169For one thing, he’s a big barbecue fan — you can watch him driving through Austin searching for the best — and pigs are a far sight smarter than lions.  Plus, most of the lions that people hunt had a chance to live (this isn’t always true — there are horror stories out there about zoos auctioning off their excess animals to hunters, which means they go from a tiny zoo enclosure to a hunting preserve to dead — but in the case of Cecil it clearly was.  He was a wild animal who got to experience life in ways that CAFO-raised pigs could hardly dream of).  Yes, Cecil suffered a drawn-out death, but that seems far preferable to a life consistently horrific from first moment to last.

Most people eat meat.  And humans are heterotrophs.  We aren’t obligate carnivores the way cats are, but a human can’t survive without hurting things — it bothers me when vegetarians pretend that their lives have reached some ethical ideal or other.  Especially because there are so many ways you could conceptualize being good.  I have some friends who raise their own animals, for instance, and they could easily argue that their extreme local eating harms the world less than my reliance on vegetables shipped across the country.

I think it’s good to consider the ramifications of our actions, and I personally strive to be kind and contribute more to the world than I take from it, but I think it’s most important to live thoughtfully.  To think about what we’re doing before we do it.  Our first priority should be taking care of ourselves and those we love.  I don’t think there’s any reasonable argument you can make to ask people to value the lives of other animals without also valuing their own.

That said, if people are going to eat meat, I’d rather they hunt.  We live in southern Indiana.  Lots of people here hunt.  In general, those people also seem less wasteful — hunters are more cognizant of the value of their meals than the people who buy under-priced grocery store cuts of meat but don’t want to know about CAFOs or slaughterhouses.

Hunters often care more about the environment than other people.  They don’t want to eat animals that’ve been grazing on trash.  Ducks Unlimited, a hunting organization, has made huge efforts to ensure that we still have wetlands for ducks and many other creatures to live in.

To the best of my knowledge, Tyson Foods hasn’t been saving any wetlands lately.

Hunters generally don’t kill off entire populations.  And they don’t pump animals full of antibiotics (which is super evil, honestly.  Antibiotics are miracle drugs.  It’s amazing that we can survive infections without amputation.  And the idea that we would still those compounds’ magic by feeding constant low levels to overcrowded animals, which is roughly what you would do if you were intentionally trying to create bacteria that would shrug off the drugs, is heartbreaking.  There are virtually no medical discoveries we could possibly make that would counterbalance the shame we should feel if we bestow a world without antibiotics on our children’s generation.  See more I’ve written about antibiotics here).

"Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park (4516560206)" by Daughter#3 - Cecil. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cecil_the_lion_at_Hwange_National_Park_(4516560206).jpg

Sure, Cecil wasn’t shot for food.  I would rather people not hunt lions.  But lions are terrifying, and they stir something primal in most humans — you could learn more about this by reading either Goodwell Nzou’s New York Times editorial or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, in which she argues that humanity’s fear of predators like lions gave rise to our propensity for violence (a thesis I don’t agree with — you can see my essay here — but Ehrenreich does a lovely job of evoking some of the terror that protohumans must have felt living weak and hairless amongst lions and other giant betoothed beclawed beasts).

The money paid to shoot Cecil isn’t irrelevant, either.  It’s a bit unnerving to think of ethics being for sale — that it’s not okay to kill a majestic creature unless you slap down $50,000 first — but let’s not kid ourselves.  Money buys a wide variety of ethical exemptions.  The rich in our country are allowed to steal millions of dollars and clear their names by paying back a portion of those spoils in fines, whereas the poor can be jailed for years for thefts well under a thousand dollars and typically pay back far more than they ever took.

The money that hunters pay seems to change a lot of host countries for the better.  Trophy hunting often occurs in places where $50,000 means a lot more than it does in the United States, and that money helps prevent poaching and promote habitat maintenance.  Unless a huge amount of economic aid is given to those countries (aid that they are owed, honestly, for the abuses committed against them in the past), the wild animals will be killed anyway, either by poachers or by settlers who have nowhere else to live.  So, sure, I dislike hunting, but hunters are providing some of the only economic support for those animals.

And, look, if you think about all of that and you still want to rail against hunters, go ahead.  But if you’re going to denounce them, I hope you’re doing more than they are for conservation.  And I hope you’re living in a way that doesn’t reveal embarrassing hypocrisies — I’m sure any one of those pigs Jimmy Kimmel eats would’ve loved to experience a small fraction of Cecil’s unfettered life.

***************

Photo by Jessika.
Food at our house (taken by Jessika).

p.s. If you happen to be one of those people who can’t imagine living happily without eating meat, you should let me know and I’ll try to invite you to dinner sometime.  I love food, and I’m a pretty good cook.  I should be honest — it is a little bit more work to make life delicious if you’re only eating vegetables, but it definitely can be done.

On identical twins & opportunity.

CaptureIf you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and look up Susan Dominus’s article on accidentally-swapped identical twins (who were then raised as two sets of fraternal twins) in the New York Times Magazine.  It’s long, so it might take you a while.  But your time will have been well spent.

I was apparently near zero-percent functional as a human being while clutching the magazine between my grubby paws. K asked me multiple questions that I blurted out irrelevant, inaccurate answers for just to get back to reading, I drove us to library baby story time without bringing any money to pay for parking (shockingly, I did not attempt to splay the magazine across the steering wheel & read while driving), then declared that (just so we wouldn’t get a ticket!) I’d sit in the car and guard it while N & K went in to the library.  Until I finished the article, though, I was probably an ineffectual guard — I could’ve been towed away without noticing anything was wrong. Hmm, there is some strange slanted motion on this page… an interesting extra-textual decision on Dominus’s part.

Okay, have you read it yet?  Do you need the link again?  Here it is!

CaptureIt’s an incredibly powerful piece, in part because it’s a rare opportunity to learn about humans in a way that would be unethical to attempt intentionally.  Given the way our world works, it would be fair for William (the twin from a middle-class family who was instead raised in abject poverty) to feel as though opportunities were taken from him.  From the article:

Carlos [the genetic offspring of impoverished parents] was wrong, William felt certain.  Sometimes, a will was not enough.  Had he grown up in Santander, Carlos would not be an accountant on the rise right now.  And Carlos’s insistence on that point felt, to William, like an insult to all he had endured — a life he had endured, no less, in Carlos’s place.

This realization is hard for Carlos to accept: he was always a hard worker, excelled in school (“Growing up, Carlos was the twin who aced the homework and Jorge [who was born to & raised by the middle class family — who “deserved” his opportunities] the twin who copied it.  Now they were each doing well; Carlos worked at an accounting firm during the day and was also completing a degree at night.”), and considered success his just reward.  To accept that his current status was due largely to a bizarre intervention by fate would mean acknowledging that he earned less of his success than he had always believed.

CaptureWhich isn’t to criticize what Carlos has accomplished with his life.  I think one message of the film Gattaca is that we should be more impressed by the accomplishments of those who were not genetically “programmed” for greatness.  The essential idea behind social darwinism is that capitalism’s victors are more fit, carry more desirable genes for our modern world — and I think Carlos has inadvertently shown how reprehensible social darwinism really is.  When given a halfway decent chance, he excelled.  Whereas his identical twin brother, raised in abject poverty, both achieved and seemed to be striving for less.  I’ll discuss the concept of “learned helplessness” in a moment, but first another quote from the article:

[Carlos] has discovered, from the questions [two reporters] asked, that Wilber [born to & raised by impoverished parents] had no intention of returning to school.  That disappointed [Carlos]; he wanted to talk to Wilber about more than women.  He wanted more for Wilber — wanted more from Wilber, but he was starting to think he might not get it.

So, learned helplessness: most people, if subject to repeated demonstrations that no matter what they do they will be punished, learn not to bother trying.  The outcome will be the same.  This is well-studied in mice — learned helplessness sets in when they are repeatedly zapped by unavoidable footshocks, but not if they are zapped just as much but always feel like there is a way to escape their torment.  Learned helplessness results in a wide range of neurological and physiological changes, and the severity seems to depend on the total duration & repetition of mistreatment: feel free to check out the third section of Hammack et al.’s “Overlapping neurobiology of learned helplessness and conditioned defeat: Implications for PTSD and mood disorders.”

And learned helplessness seems to underly many humans’ lack of scholastic effort.  Check out this lovely (but bleak) paragraph from Dawoud Bey‘s “Swagger:”

27_Screen Shot 2012-06-27 at 9_33_56 PM
Dawoud Bey, photographer, contributor to Rebecca Walker’s Black Cool.

My brother and I were among the first group of Black kids to integrate all-white schools through busing: that is, we were taken out of the schools in our largely Black neighborhood and brought to schools in white neighborhoods, where presumably the quality of educational services being delivered was better.  To survive in that world, especially in higher quarters, we had to become adept at what you might call a kind of behavioral code switching, the use of more than one language in speech.  It soon became apparent that Black intellectual swagger was also suspect in such an environment, as I was constantly asked where I had copied my homework from, especially those assignments that required original thinking, such as writing a poem.

Bey clearly persevered — I imagine you have to know you’re good to make it as a photographer — but it’s also perfectly reasonable that many children, if they’re punished both for not trying (low grade) and trying (accused of cheating) in school, would learn not to try.  And Wilber, the poor twin from the article, didn’t even have access to teachers who would’ve expected failure from a country kid.  It’s reasonable for him to have learned to strive for attainable goals.

CaptureAnd, to get back to the idea that Carlos was given opportunities that should have been William’s — which is stated in the article, and which I reflexively thought, too, even after everything I’ve read about our history — why, exactly, is it fair for one newborn to be consigned to doom and the other provided with hope?  They were born to parents who had achieved different lots in life.  But those parents, too, were presumably offered different opportunities — we could probably look back through many generations and see that the forebears of impoverished children were born into rotten situation after rotten situation.

In the United States, I think it’s ridiculous that anyone would argue that the need for affirmative action has passed.  Statistically, a baby born to black parents today will have fewer opportunities — worse nutrition, less green space to play in, fewer books & toys at home, less time to be talked to by parents, worse schools —  than a baby born to white parents.  And, sure, the issue is really one of wealth — being born to poor parents results in fewer opportunities than being born to wealthy parents — but race & wealth are still correlated in this country.  And for pretty obvious reasons: wealth begets wealth, these differences in general will simply be compounded over time, and there has never been an effort toward equalizing reparations for the fact that black people were brutally enslaved not long ago.

Which, again, isn’t to take anything away from what Carlos has achieved.  He & his fraternal brother, raised together in that middle class family, were presumably afforded similar opportunities, and Carlos achieved more (within the capitalist framework that defines success by money & degrees & beautiful romantic partners).  Which clearly wasn’t guaranteed — a strange twist of fate gave him a chance, not success.  But I strongly believe that his success demonstrates how evil it is that not all children are given a chance.  The article is great, but it also makes me feel ashamed to be an American — because I live in a country where inequality starts so grievously at birth.

On Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth (until devolving into senseless tangents about cash transfers as medicine, the U.S. criminal justice system, work as exercise, and flawed science).

9780425277973As long as you think feeling angry is fun (does it say awful things about my personality that I do?), Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth is a fun little book.

Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Tirado’s main focus isn’t analyzing why people are poor — she states, bluntly and in my opinion correctly, that the issue is simply not enough money.  Wages are low, hours are short (with bonus structural impediments to taking second jobs in order to compensate for short hours), and debt (especially medical debt) is high.

There are a few sections with analysis like what you may have read in Ehrenreich’s work, about the high cost of financial transactions for poor people, for instance, but primarily Tirado’s book is a narrative about her own experiences feeling spiritually and physically oppressed by poverty.  And that’s great.  I’m not sure there’s another book like this written by someone who’s lived in that world (a world shared by ca. 1/3 of the populace of the United States) for as long as she has, which is part of what makes the book so compelling.

I was very appreciative to have a tour guide whom I could trust to have all the little details right.  And, yes, it’s angering.  It’s bleak and off-putting.  But Tirado has a charming sense of humor, which helps her work go down easier… and, honestly, itshouldn’t go down too easy.  I’d like to think that people better off than Tirado should hate themselves a little while reading her book; couldn’t we have done more to fix things, so that her book would’ve never been written?

I know I didn’t do enough.  I spent many years doing biomedical research; my successes might help wealthy people live a little longer.  But, in terms of maximizing well-being, more research findings aren’t what we need.

Like, okay, the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis is something I care a lot about, and my father is an infectious disease doctor who has been researching ways to help for years, and has recently begun another research initiative in Kenya that local doctors and scientists will be participating in… but, still, is it possible that economic initiatives could ameliorate the crisis more readily than biomedical research?  Yes.  Definitely.  AIDS is still a big deal in the United States, for instance, but suffering is decidedly correlated with poverty.  If you’re lucky enough to be related to someone who works in the right clinics, you can hear stories about all sorts of people who’ve come up with a raw deal from life, but the few big news stories I’ve seen lately are set in regions of economic blight (e.g. this one, from my own home state of Indiana).

So, thank you Tirado.  I imagine most people already know what ought to be done to fix the issues she’s writing about — some minimum standard of medical care that people can receive debt free, higher wages, more worker protections (like getting rid of “at-will” employment and requiring schedules to be contracted in advance) — so I think it’s great that she wrote her book the way she did.  Specifically, not focusing on what should be done but rather presenting her own experience — which isn’t even as bad as it gets — in all its horrors.

And then, two minor responses.  I wanted to save these for the end because these sound rather like complaints, to me, but they aren’t meant to be.  Her book was good, and these are just two things I thought about while I was reading it.

She writes that the U.S. doesn’t have debtor’s prison anymore.  Just after that sentence, she does acknowledge that people can be thrown into jail for failure to pay court fees, but… how is that not debtor’s prison? Here’s John Oliver on the subject.

Like, yes, you have to be broke and violate a law before you can be thrown in jail, but it’s not really possible to live in the U.S. without violating any laws.  Which is obviously problematic in and of itself.  It’s insane to have a patchwork of laws on the books that people violate every day and then leave it to police officers’ discretion whether or not people will be charged with crimes.

For instance, when Tirado discusses driving strategies to avoid being stopped by the police, she says she always drives two miles per hour above the speed limit.  Which is illegal.  Driving one mile per hour above the speed limit is illegal.  If you really wanted to avoid breaking any laws, you’d have to drive a couple miles per hour below the speed limit… that way minor deviations wouldn’t result in an illegal speed.

At four miles per hour below the speed limit, though, you’ll get pulled over.  I’ve been stopped numerous times for driving too slowly, even at speeds only one or two miles per hour below posted limits.  And I even drive nice-looking cars!  A dent-free, rain-washed Honda Civic!  Previously a Toyota Avalon that had sufficient internal maladies that I called it “The Torpedo,” but the exterior was fine.  I’ve read that people in decrepit vehicles are pulled over more.

So it’s easy to be stopped by police and charged with something, at which point you’ll have to pay court fees, and if you don’t you’ll go to jail (as is well-documented in The New Jim Crow).  And if you try to avoid going to jail for debt by evading capture (as is depicted in On the Run), you might be executed.

I typically write these essays a few days before they go up.  I’m writing this one on April 9th; yesterday the video was released of another person being murdered without cause by a police officer, this time because he was running away (presumably because he didn’t want to go to jail for unpaid child support, court fees), and… wait, nope.  No “and.”  He was running away, so the police officer shot him, to stop him, then shot him again, and again… then planted a (ineffectual) weapon on the body to justify having murdered the man.  Why, again, would it seem reasonable to trust police officers to use their discretion in choosing which crimes should be punished?

[Note: Tirado has since informed me that the line about the U.S. not having debtor’s prison was meant to be a joke. Which was already pretty clear from her work, i.e. the immediate juxtaposition of that claim with the fact that they’ll lock you up for not paying court fees. But even though it was clear Tirado knows the score, I wrote the preceding paragraphs… how else was I going to work in the horrific idea that dudes are apparently now subject to debtor’s execution?]

The other thing I wanted to mention was, Tirado writes about how poor people generally don’t have time for / feel too exhausted for exercise.  But she also walks a lot, and her work is often physically arduous, much more so than any job I’ve ever held (which, right — I worked in laboratories for a decade, and since then I’ve been writing.  I’ve never had to endure anything worse than a little wrist pain while I was typing a lot and learning to lift a baby many times per day)… so I wanted to toss in a link to Crum and Langer’s study wherein hotel cleaning staff who were told that their day to day work is exercise became healthier.

ModelC5_1912Oops.  Okay, so, minor admission to make on my part.  I’d never read that paper until today — I simply remembered the coverage of it from the popular press — and there might be some, uh, minor problems.  My opinion is that you’d definitely want to conduct a study longer than 30 days to test something like this, especially because there are many wacky treatments that can result in short term weight loss and apparent health gains.  Indeed, another research group attempted to replicate their findings, and also continued the study for a slightly longer period of time — still not long enough if they were reporting a positive result, in my opinion, but they weren’t.  They reported seeing no change in health outcome.  Although they did see a change.  Measured blood pressure went down in their treatment group.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but reading scientific papers can be frustrating.  Normally, I don’t do it.  In general, the way I’ve been trained to engage with scientific papers is to look at the pictures and read the figure legends, then read the abstract, then jot down my own impression next to the abstract.

But I was trained to do that for a small range of fields — nothing much harder than quantum mechanics (“hard” here doesn’t mean “difficult,” btw; my preferred synonym is “intransigent”), nothing much squishier than cellular biology.  Whereas my recent research has covered a wider swath, which means I have to actually read papers, especially a review or two before I look at research results.

And it’s maddening sometimes, looking at a figure and thinking, “Oh, they’ve found this,” but then reading the text and seeing that they’ve stated “We found that.”  I’ve definitely posted a link to this previously, but Emily Willingham has written a very fun guided tour through this type of doublethink.  Or, if you’d prefer your meander through the vagaries of data interpretation be mega-bleak (i.e. about child abuse) instead of rather bleak (i.e. about sexism in academia), one of my own previous posts touches upon this idea as well.

Anyway, my apologies for the digression.  Definitely didn’t mean to go so far off topic!  It’s just that Tirado wrote about walking a lot and also said she doesn’t exercise.  Which reminded me of that study.  But how could I have expected that a high-profile psychology study might have flaws??

OhWait.

p.s. This essay was a bit of a downer, so I scrolled through the archives for an old “Dave vs. Dave” about economic injustice.  Here ya go!

dave59